In the past year, pandemic has fueled supply-chain disruptions, workforce shortages and a decrease in consumers’ ability to purchase necessities. According to Deloitte’s 2021 Manufacturing Industry Outlook, the industry faced unprecedented declines. The situation has spawned another push for reshoring of jobs to the U.S., to bring home more of the nation’s basic production infrastructure.
The day-to-day reality for American corporations is more complicated than simple proclamations about the need to bring back manufacturing, or buy more American-made products. When examined more closely, the reality of reshoring production from low-cost labor countries shows there is little substance to claims that the reshoring of jobs will favor the U.S. on a net basis, as a single company is apt to simultaneously reshore and outsource different operations across departments or production lines.
Viewed in this context, the March announcement by Walmart could stand out as a concrete step. The big-box retailer unveiled a plan to invest $350 billion over 10 years in products grown, made, or assembled in the U.S. Thanks to its huge network of suppliers, and the ripple effect that such a shift in the supply chain will have, the plan is estimated to create 750,000 U.S.-based jobs, many of which will be in the manufacturing sector. Walmart’s purchasing decisions could reverberate throughout the food, plastics, textile, pharmaceutical and medical, and electrical appliances industries.
Assuming, of course, that there are 750,000 Americans eager to take those jobs. In the past 10 years, the U.S. has faced acute shortages of skilled labor, causing manufacturers to shift production to other parts of the world. How do we ensure that Walmart and other U.S. firms will be able to find the tens of millions of helping hands required?
Take the discrete task of assessing production quality. Statistics show that the final steps of visually checking the quality of a product absorbs some 35 million workers around the world. That’s roughly the population of Canada devoted just to executing this basic function on the manufacturing floor. How confident are we that millions of Americans are looking forward to performing these very repetitive tasks, especially when alternatives are available on the job market?
The solution comes in the form of better technology-aided jobs. The pandemic has taught us a lesson or two about technology and manufacturing. Since March 2020, Industry 4.0 initiatives and the industrial internet of things (IIoT) have morphed from “nice to have” to “must have,” as manufacturers scrambled to produce what was desperately needed. Technologies such as artificial intelligence make sense of data from machines, cameras, and other sensors deployed on the production floor, to help keep production output up and running.
Consider the manufacturing of automotive parts: driveshafts, car interiors, and brake calipers. To complete a production run, these parts need human inspection on the production floor, a task that is even more difficult today due to current health conditions. When it comes to food packaging, one of the sectors targeted by Walmart, it’s common practice for workers to perform checks at the end of the line (a task that’s already in need of more human oversight), but by the time a product issue is identified at the end of a run, it’s too late to correct it. Such mistakes result in either wasted product or the need to rework, both of which are very costly.
In the U.S. manufacturing sector, which is already in acute need of additional human workers, it’s hard to conceive how “throwing more workers” into the mix is a viable option. The path to an increase in quality manufacturing jobs has to draw on A.I. and automation. As IIoT becomes more commonplace — with dozens of inexpensive sensors gathering data, as well as basic diagnostics from equipment — manufacturers will be able to embed A.I. that can extract insights directly on the production floor, helping humans to assess production cycles based on machine data across runs.
The result will be more resilient production, less downtime, and better manufacturing jobs, with low-level, de-humanizing and repetitive tasks left to A.I. and automation. Human oversight won’t be needed to perform the day-to-day, mundane operations of “producing stuff.”
A.I. and robots can work alongside humans in tasks such as quality inspection and predictive maintenance. These are the future jobs for a strong U.S. manufacturing industry.
Max Versace is co-founder and CEO of vision A.I. company Neurala.
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